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23 years after its release, 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' is back in theaters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was the movie that had it all - love, mystical weapons and out-of-this-world fight scenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Mandarin).

CHANG: And this was a movie with an all-Asian cast, including Michelle Yeoh, who's up for a best actress Oscar this year. "Crouching Tiger" blew away U.S. box offices by grossing more than $100 million. It was a huge deal for a movie that was almost totally in Mandarin with English subtitles. And if you missed it the first time around back in 2000, it is reopening to theaters today. And to take us back to what a phenomenon this movie was and also how bittersweet this rerelease kind of is, we're joined now by author and culture critic Jeff Yang. Welcome, Jeff.

JEFF YANG: Thank you, Ailsa - so glad to be here.

CHANG: Oh, I'm so excited to have this conversation. So I remember this movie came out when I was still in law school, and my parents, my brother and I - we all made this point of going to see it together as a family because it was such a big deal to all of us. Can you just take us back to what this moment meant at the time for, like, Asian Americans, for Asian filmmakers?

YANG: When this film came out, it was seen, at least initially, as kind of this exotic independent film, foreign movie that probably would not garner too much attention, certainly not much by way of general audience interest. And for me, this was something that just seemed like a breath of the familiar, the nostalgic.

CHANG: Right.

YANG: But once I was actually in the theater - and it was a packed house - I remember just looking to my left and my right, realizing that the rest of the theater was full of, well, non-Asian folks who were there not knowing what to expect. And then the people started to fly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDS CLANGING)

YANG: And jaws dropped. And there were oohs and ahs...

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: ...Because this moment of wonder, this just incredible martial arts choreography by Yuen Wop-ping - this was something which most audiences in America would never have experienced.

CHANG: Totally. And to hear Americans talking back then about how, like, Chow Yun-Fat, at least for a small moment, was like some Chinese Tom Cruise - that was eye-opening to me because it was like, no, duh. But...

YANG: It was eye-opening. But at the same time, every time I heard something like that, I was thinking to myself, Tom Cruise is an American Chow Yun-Fat, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Totally. You know, but despite the love and all the excitement and energy around this movie, Hollywood didn't really follow up with, like, a blockbuster sequel to "Crouching Tiger." It didn't follow up with a bunch of other Asian movies featuring storylines set in Asia with mostly Asian actors. I mean, we didn't see another basically all-Asian cast in a major Hollywood movie until 18 years later with "Crazy Rich Asians." Why do you think that was?

YANG: I mean, it's a little too perhaps glib to just simply say, well, racism.

CHANG: Right.

YANG: But...

CHANG: But yeah.

YANG: I mean, yes, right? But the reality is this, right? When we talk about even a word as loaded as racism, it isn't always outright bigotry. It's more just the expectations set that Hollywood has for what works and what doesn't. And Hollywood, for whatever reason, is very conservative at the end of the day.

CHANG: Also, with respect to Michelle Yeoh, who is 60 years old, has been making movies for, like, four decades, does it feel like this moment of recognition, both in this rerelease and, of course, the Oscar nomination - does it feel like Hollywood is finally saying, oh, yeah, yeah, you are pretty cool?

YANG: They're saying it. They're saying it loud. And Michelle's response in all the interviews I've read and seen and done, for that matter, with her is, where you been, guys?

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: You know...

CHANG: Hello.

YANG: What's taken you so long?

CHANG: I've been here forever.

YANG: Those of us who've known her and watched her from the very beginning of her career realize that this is not new for her, either, the sort of belated acknowledgement of her achievements, her talent, her skills. In a world where men and white men in particular are just naturally seen as kind of the center of the universe, there's something really lovely about the fact she's getting her due now...

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: ...But also something a little bit - again, why did it take so long?

CHANG: Exactly. I'm definitely going back in the theater for this one. That is culture critic Jeff Yang. Thank you so much, Jeff. This was so much fun.

YANG: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHANGHAI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF TAN DUN'S "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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